Best Running Backs Of All-Time
The best running backs of all-time are an unstoppable force. Peak running back performance is an exhibition of sheer physical prowess. Styles vary from bruisers to fleet-footed athletes, but regardless of the process, there is little in sport as exhilarating as a game-changing rush.
The role has changed over the years. NFL teams have become more pass-heavy, meaning rushing stats have generally decreased. Where the top running backs of all-time were often the stars of their team, they are rarely held in such high esteem.
10 Greatest Running Backs In NFL History
Many of the players featuring among the greatest running backs in NFL history were the offense. In the 2020s, save for a few exceptions, running backs are a cog in the machine, a means to keep the defense honest, rather than the star man.
As a result, unlike the greatest quarterbacks, this list is skewed towards previous generations.
Here are our 10 best running backs of all-time…
Three MVPs, nine Pro Bowl selections and a ring locked Jim Brown into this list. At the time of his premature retirement, Brown was the all-time leader in rushing yards and touchdowns on the ground.
“Make sure when anyone tackles you, he remembers how much it hurts.”
– Jim Brown pic.twitter.com/JFiDFZ0Vla
— Football Advantage (@AdvFootball) August 23, 2021
Despite some of his records since being overtaken, Brown remains top of the pile in yards per carry among players with 10,000 or more rushing yards. Only five players have recorded more rushing touchdowns.
Calling it a day in 1965, Brown could surely have dominated the NFL for another few years. He was All-Pro in every single season he played, and was the rushing yards leader in eight of his nine campaigns. There will never be another running back quite like Jim Brown.
Fourth all-time in rushing yards, Barry Sanders, just like Brown, ended his career earlier than many expected. Having made a habit of taking the Lions to the postseason, Sanders had grown frustrated with the direction of the organization, and felt like they could not contend.
A Heisman Trophy winner and Unanimous All-American, Sanders went third overall and immediately terrorized NFL defenses. An Offensive Rookie of the Year award was just the start. He led the league in rushing yards on four occasions, including a mammoth 2,000-yard campaign. That, unsurprisingly, was the year he picked up his lone MVP award.
An occasional threat as a pass receiver as well as a diverse rusher, Sanders is a guarantee to be on any list of the best running backs of all-time.
There’s no argument against Emmitt Smith. The owner of numerous records when he retired (single-season touchdowns (25), career rushing yards (18,355) and career rushing touchdowns (164)),Smith was a force to be reckoned with. He combined elite production with longevity in a way that few running backs can.
Of course, he benefited from a strong offensive line, but it takes a smart back to be able to use that line to his advantage on a consistent basis. Smith did just that, finding gaps and punishing defenses.
With three rings, an MVP, and six All-Pro selections, Smith is arguably the number one running back in NFL history.
Named Offensive Player of the Year in three straight years, Marshall Faulk reinvented the position. He was a dual-threat running back unlike any other in his era, sitting 12th in rushing yards and 1st all-time in receiving yards for a running back.
Happy birthday to Hall of Fame RB @marshallfaulk!
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) February 26, 2021
Only seven players can top his rushing touchdowns tally. The production was rewarded with MVP in 2000, and a catalogue of other honors.
There are bonus points here for being a standout performer in the Greatest Show On Turf, too. Faulk was a true star at the position, and changed the way the game is played.
Walter Payton is the only player to have 10 seasons with 1,200 or more rushing yards. At the time of his retirement, he stood alone at the top of the list for career rushing yards. And even in 2021, only Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith have registered more yards from scrimmage.
Here’s Walter Payton running the Bears offense out of the goddamn shotgun because Walter Payton does what he wants on a football field.
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) March 24, 2021
Universally adored, Payton remains a joy to watch. His blend of stiff arms and stutter steps left defenses bamboozled. He had versatility that to this day is unmatched, too.
Many of the other names in this article have cited Payton as an inspiration. It’s not controversial to say he’s in the top five NFL players of all-time.
Playing for the Bears from 1965 to 1971, Gale Sayers’ career was brought to an end by injuries. Sayers still put together a Hall of Fame resume, however, and holds more than his fair share of NFL records.
Probably Gale Sayers. He was remarkable in the career he had in the NFL, but if he played 10-15 years without the injuries he sustained, the numbers would have been even more incredible. Curious other fan’s thoughts, inside or outside of Chicago sports on this question. https://t.co/h7YdHnzol6
— Larry Hawley (@HawleySports) August 23, 2021
No other player has scored six touchdowns in an NFL game. His kick-off return average of over 30.5 is the best mark of all-time. Five times All-Pro and twice the rushing leader, Sayers’ opponents have been widely complimentary of his ability.
Far from a bruiser, Sayers possessed aesthetically pleasing agility to slither away from would-be tacklers.
Unanimously voted to the NFL’s 2010s All-Decade team, Adrian Peterson was the best running back of his generation. The rewards for such dominance were plentiful, with the Oklahoma product winning MVP in 2012, following on from Offensive Rookie of the Year five seasons previous.
Ranking top five in career rushing yards and touchdowns, Peterson also holds the record for most rushing yards in a game, and has been named All-Pro on seven occasions.
Facing peak AP was a painful experience for opposition defenses. He was relentless, big, quick, and phenomenally strong.
Still climbing the career lists, Frank Gore’s peak production might not matchup with the other best running backs of all-time. His durability is phenomenal, though. Gore is fourth all-time in yards from scrimmage.
His 241 games played (as of August 2021) is the most of any running back. He achieved 12 consecutive seasons of 1,200 yards from scrimmage, a feat which has never been matched.
It feels silly to say a player with his numbers is underrated, but that’s an apt description of Frank Gore’s NFL career. Perhaps he will only get appropriate appreciation once he retires.
His place in Canton already secured, LaDainian Tomlinson brought everything a franchise could hope for in a modern running back. The traditional rushing was there. Tomlinson provided so much more, though, as a receiving threat and decoy.
Three times leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns, Tomlinson set a couple of single-season records for rushing touchdowns and touchdowns from scrimmage in 2006, his MVP campaign.
Emmitt Smith is still the only player with more career rushing scores. Just five players have more scrimmage yards – Tomlinson is ahead of Adrian Peterson and Barry Sanders in that category.
Some players take a while to adapt to the NFL. Eric Dickerson was not one of those.
10. Thurman Thomas – 16,532
11. Tony Dorsett – 16,293
12. Tiki Barber – 15,632
13. Edgerrin James – 15,610
14. Eric Dickerson – 15,396
15. Warrick Dunn – 15,306
16. Steven Jackson – 15,121
17. Jerome Bettis – 15,111
18. LeSean McCoy – 15,000
19. Ricky Watters – 14,891
— JAKE ELLENBOGEN (@JKBOGEN) July 13, 2021
Posting over 1,800 yards and 18 scores as a rookie, Dickerson broke the single-season rushing record in his second year. His first few years in the league were enough for the Rams to retire his number, though he soon moved on to play for the Colts.
Indianapolis got a couple of great years from Dickerson as he added yet more Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors to his glittering resume.
His career didn’t end as he might have hoped, but Dickerson’s peak performance is up there with the best running backs of all-time.